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Voters decide to cut benefits for the disabled

The reform is aimed at reintegrating disabled people into the labour market Keystone

Access to disability benefits in Switzerland will be restricted following Sunday's nationwide ballot which saw a clear majority supporting the move.

This content was published on June 17, 2007 - 19:07

The result was widely expected and comes as parliament considers plans to shore up the financing of the beleaguered insurance scheme.

Nearly 60 per cent of voters came out in favour of annual spending cuts of about SFr500 million ($402 million) and a reduction by 20 per cent in the number of new beneficiaries each year.

Interior Minister Pascal Couchepin, who is in charge of the social security portfolio, said the result was a confirmation of the government's policy to save the disability insurance scheme from financial ruin.

He said the centre-left parties had been wrong to force a referendum against a decision by parliament and also criticised the rightwing Swiss People's Party for blocking plans to approve further funding for the debt-ridden state disability insurance scheme.

The scheme has notched up debts of SFr9 billion after dropping into the red ten years ago as a result of a rise in cases of psychological disorders.

Centre-right and rightwing political parties, as well as the business community, welcomed the result of the vote – the last one before October's parliamentary elections. They said it was necessary to crack down on abuses of the benefit system and improve prevention efforts as well as the reintegration of the disabled into the labour market.

Respectable

Opponents, including centre-left parties, trade unions and some organisations for the disabled described the outcome of the vote as a respectable result.

"We knew that it would be almost impossible to win, but it was necessary to put the issue on the political agenda," said Peter Wehrli, a leading promoter of the referendum.

He added that the result was a disgrace for a rich country like Switzerland and that he felt sorry for all those people who face cuts in benefits.

During the campaign opponents warned that the planned cuts would be at the expense of the weaker members of society and burden the welfare system with additional cases.

They also criticised the fact that the amendment failed to give an incentive to employers, or to put pressure on them to hire disabled people.

Damage limited

Georg Lutz, a political scientist at Bern University, says the centre-left was too hesitant and faced a united front of supporters of the cuts.

"But damage is limited since the left managed to get 40 per cent of the vote which is above the support it receives in elections," Lutz told swissinfo.

He added that a controversial postcard campaign, depicting some cabinet ministers as physically disabled, had no significant impact on the outcome of the vote.

"Turnout was below average. The controversy at least prompted a short-lived debate on the issue at stake, but the campaign remained low-key."

Lutz says the chances of finding a compromise between the four main parties for the future funding of the state disability insurance system depend to some extent on the outcome of the forthcoming parliamentary elections.

"If the Swiss People's Party were to stagnate, the other parties might be more willing to compromise and be able to sideline the hardliners," he said.

The government wants to increase Value Added Tax to boost the funding of the scheme. It is currently financed by a 1.4 per cent deduction from salaries, with the federal authorities providing additional funding.

swissinfo, Urs Geiser

In brief

The number of beneficiaries increased to 256,300 last year from 173,216 in 1997. 3.2% of the total population claimed disability benefits in 1990, the figure rose to 5.3% in 2005.

The percentage of claimants unfit for work for psychological reasons increased to 37.5% from 28% in the same period.

The disability insurance scheme, which was set up in 1960 and is administered by the state old age pension scheme, made a deficit of SFr1.6 billion and accumulated debts of SFr9 billion last year.

For the first time in the history of the insurance system the number of new beneficiaries dropped in 2006 also as a result of stricter checks introduced in 2004.

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Key facts

Final results:

Yes: 59.1%
No: 40.9%
Turnout: 36.3%

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